Unions strike during recession

Over the past year, Ontario has seen many labour disputes resulting in strikes afflicting municipalities and corporations.

With the recession taking a toll on employers and employees alike, reaching an agreement on finances can be increasingly difficult.

The Cord takes a look at the recent strikes at the city of Windsor, the city of Toronto and York University to help understand the implications of labour disputes on those both directly and indirectly involved.

Windsor:

CUPE Local 82 and CUPE 543

In Windsor, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 82, representing garbage, roadwork and gardening workers went on strike on April 15.

CUPE 543, representing the city’s social services, daycare, bylaw and clerical workers, went on strike a few days later. The strike lasted a total of 101 days.

CUPE 82 asked for a wage increase and refused the city’s proposed two-tier benefit scheme for new employees. CUPE 543’s demands focused on post-retirement benefits.

The city claimed that they were unable to meet the unions’ demands with the decrease in revenue caused by the current economic recession.

“Either you lay off people or you increase taxes and increasing taxes wasn’t an option,” explained Fulvio Valentinis, a Windsor city councilor.

“To protect everybody’s job we had to take a tough stand on cutting our costs.”

Although the strike is now over, a sense of bitterness and animosity still exists between the parties.

“It’s going to take a long time to heal those wounds,” said Valentinis.

The long-term implications of the strike are only starting to take effect.

“What the strike has done is it’s really got the public involved in municipal services and in questioning what services we’re providing, how we’re providing [them] and the costs of those services,” Valentinis added.

The city of Windsor is currently waiting on a report that analyses their public services and implications of turning certain services – including garbage removal – over to private contractors.

“There is a substantial public outcry that maybe we should be looking at,” said Valentinis.

Valentinis noted the financial implications of the strike for both the city and union employees.

“If you take three months, that’s one quarter of a year’s salary. There’s no question that there was substantial hardship on some of these people [who went on strike],” said Valentinis.

Toronto:

CUPE Local 79 and CUPE 416

The city of Toronto underwent a similar situation to Windsor this summer when CUPE 416 and Local 79 walked out on June 22. The strike lasted 39 days and caused the cancellation of city-run Canada Day celebrations.

Both municipal strikes illustrate the complications of failed collective bargaining.

“Collective bargaining as a whole is a collective freedom that is valued in our society,” said Bruce Skeaff, media relations for the Ministry of Labour.

Skeaff noted that lengthy strikes as these are not common practice.

“[Collective bargaining] works the vast majority of times. The number of labour disruptions in this province are very, very small,” explained Skeaff considering the number of contract agreements made annually.

York University: CUPE 3903

Back-to-work legislation brought an end to the lengthy strike at York.

The 84-day strike of CUPE Local 3903 representing teaching assistants, contract faculty and graduate assistants at York University left students locked out of their classrooms from Nov. 6, 2008 – Jan. 29, 2009.

Following this the university suffered a 10 per cent drop in applications for the fall of 2009; however, the enrolment numbers are anticipated to stay consistent with the previous year’s.

Current students had to cope with the further complications of resuming the fall semester in January and extending the winter semester to mid June.

The university worked to help students through the motions of an irregular term.

“Everybody throughout the university stepped in to help the students to ensure the quality of their education,” said Alex Bilyk, director of media relations at York University.

Though they were not paying faculty during the strike, there were no financial savings for the university.

“We put out additional funds to students to help them out, especially those with financial needs,” said Bilyk.

That support, however, was not a unanimous feeling among students.

“We got no money for it and the only option they offered was dropping courses for credits next year,” said Emily Bissell-Barahona, a third-year music student at York University.

“Even when we went back they didn’t tell us about these options that we had. There was nothing,” she added.

Receiving the proper quality of education in condensed semesters was another concern among students.

“For me personally I didn’t get my [music] practice time at all and that’s part of something I pay for,” said Bissell-Barahona.

Although agreements were reached in each instance, the implications of a strike on all parties continue to play out months after the dispute was concluded.

“There are no winners in a strike,” said Bilyk.

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